Whenever Jesus asked his disciples to get into a boat, he had a way of asking them penetrating and difficult questions about their faith. In Matthew 16 Jesus brought the disciples into a boat, talked about the yeast of the Pharisees and then asked if they “still do not understand?” Earlier, he brought them into a boat in Mark 6. A storm raged, Jesus walked on water, called Peter out of the boat and asked his disciples in the face of the storm, “You of little faith, why do you doubt?” And in our lesson this morning, as heard in Mark 4 and Matthew 8, Jesus again commands his disciples into a boat. There is a storm. He is in the boat this time and in the midst of the storm Jesus asks, “Why are you afraid, you of little faith?” In Christ God offers us peace. God does so through observing the Sabbath as well. As we consider whether to take them both seriously, we might ask ourselves, “What are we afraid of?” Let us pray.
Two items in the news caught my attention when we got back this week. First a study in the journal, Science, by researchers from Harvard and the University of Virginia which found that when people are asked to spend up to 15 minutes in a room by themselves with no distractions, no cell phones, no computers, no TV, nothing, most had a very difficult time doing it. We have come to treasure our distractions and noise.
In fact, the researchers found that “simply being alone with their own thoughts for 15 minutes was apparently so aversive that it drove many participants to self-administer an electric shock that they had earlier said they would pay to avoid.” And interestingly 67 percent of men, rather than be alone with their thoughts, self-administered shocks compared to 25 percent of women. Draw your own conclusions from that. But regardless of age, whether 18 or 77, Americans don’t seem to like to be left alone doing very little.
Secondly, Pope Francis’ talk this week about Sabbath got the attention of many in the media. Many will watch the World Cup this afternoon. Some have called it the Pope’s Cup as Germany and Argentina represent the home countries of the last two Popes.
Pope Francis has lamented the abandoning of the traditionally Christian practice of observing Sabbath on Sundays, saying it has a negative impact on families and friendships. He added: “Maybe it’s time to ask ourselves if working on Sundays is true freedom.” The pope encouraged parents to “Waste time with your children!”
For many of us the summer is a time of relative relaxing. Work and church life slow down. Schools take a break. Travel and vacations allow us to have a kind of Sabbath rest. And that is good for us. It allows us to develop some refreshing and healthy patterns.
I find July the single best month of the year to develop habits of rest for the year to come. June still has school winding down and August has it ramping up. July allows the space to actually focus on good habits of rest. So for the next three weeks we’ll be focusing on Sabbath rest in worship.
It’s important because Christians are used to talking about God’s activity. After all, the church has spent much of its history trying to express not only that God exists, but that God is active in the world. An emphasis on an active God is particularly important to the Reformed Tradition. Our tradition emphasizes the sovereignty and providence of a God who is active in our lives.
The broader Reformed church focuses on the 500th anniversary of the birth of Scottish leader John Knox this coming October. He believed in the importance of hard work.
Knox and John Calvin believed firmly that we should work hard as we try to live in response to God’s actions. They did so because they saw that the Bible is full of stories of God acting towards God’s people. For example, when we teach Genesis 1 and 2, we typically focus on God’s active creation. Moreover, our lesson this morning is part of a series of stories of Jesus acting in performing miracles.
But there is inactivity afoot in them as well. In the creation story at the beginning of Genesis, when we read of how God acted to create the world, think of what God did next. Did God publicize God’s work, continue immediately to refine them or move onto another creation? No, God rested! God’s inactivity matters as well.
What about Jesus’ actions in our lesson? Matthew 8 records what must have been a terrifying boat ride for Jesus’ disciples. Jesus beckoned them to join him in the boat. They began to sail when a mighty storm arose. The wind whirled and began to thrash the boat around. 2000 years ago the boats were not as stable as ours today, so the disciples must have been quite scared.
And where was Jesus? At the tiller guiding the boat? On the boom, holding the sails tight? No, he was asleep in the back of the boat. Matthew records that the disciples had to go to him and wake him up. If God’s activity was all that mattered, why would the Bible, from Genesis to the Gospels, describe God’s resting and Jesus’ sleeping at critical times? Because resting and sleeping are critical activities.
The question is, are we neglecting them? As the study in Science reveals, ours is a society where rest has become a four letter word, and not just literally. James Gleick writes in his book Faster: The Acceleration of Just About Everything, that Americans today have become a people who rush from one activity to another. Mobile technology keeps us in constant contact with our offices and responsibilities. This promotes productivity but not relaxation.
I read about an advertisement recently for an edible product targeted for people “who don’t have time for minute rice.” The comedian Steven Wright has joked in watching the Indianapolis 500 car race that they “should have started it earlier and then they would not have to go as fast.” A recent U.S. News and World Report cover story on adult attention deficit disorder found that we Americans are spun in so many directions that we’ve developed an aversion to not being stimulated and feel guilty resting. As if staying still was a phobia we needed to address by moving onto the next activity quickly.
Part of our hard charging attitude goes back to American history. American hustling could have started with Benjamin Franklin. Franklin himself was not very religious but Franklin’s father was a devote Calvinist who was a great influence in his son’s life. He shared ideas about John Calvin’s focus on the importance of work as a calling.
Obviously, initiative and hard work helped Ben Franklin, and humans from history to the present, become successful. We are meant to use our gifts actively in the world. We are also called to try and change the conditions of the world that are problematic and inconsistent with how we understand God’s will. God expects us to take ourselves, our gifts and our commitments seriously. But not more seriously than the God who created us.
When we step back and look at God’s creation, there is a balance to it. The creation story in Genesis is all about balance, as God created light and dark, earth and sky, man and woman. And it ends with a balance of work and rest on the 7th day. We see that balance reflected in plant life today. If certain plant species do not lie dormant for winter, they will not bear fruit in the spring. If this continues for more than a season, the plant begins to die.
Where do we reflect that balance and rest in our lives? Have we taken the time to even ask ourselves that question? My grandfather used to say that the “Art of relaxation is the most difficult of all arts.” And under-appreciated. Given all the distractions of life, it takes purpose to do inactivity well. I must admit that I struggle mightily with this. I admire those people who have mastered the art of relaxation.
You are here on the Sabbath. The traditional day of rest mandated in the Hebrew Bible, in the 4th commandment and in our tradition. Sabbath matters. God does not get tired the way we do. So after creation, God didn’t need to rest on the 7th day. God could have ended God’s creative work at the end of the sixth day, because it seemed at that point that God had provided everything humans needed for life. So why did God rest on the 7th day? Because God had not given us all that we needed for life. Humans needed rest and God created it. God blessed and sanctified the Sabbath as time for rest and spiritual growth.
The theology of Sabbath reverses our expectations and priorities. We too often rest on Sunday for the sake of the week, so we can do more work on Monday. The idea of a Sabbath is just the opposite. The theology of a Sabbath holds that we work during the week for the sake of what we do on the Sabbath.
Having rituals of calm, exercise, family time, reading, and rest are so important. For people who need to be doing something in order to be doing nothing Sabbath gives us that permission because inactivity can be purposeful. A Washington Post crossword puzzle I saw recently contained the quote, “the time you waste is not wasted time.” The theology of Sabbath inspires us to purposeful inactivity.
It requires us to let go. Each summer there are activities we stop doing for the summer. Our challenge will be to keep us from adding some back. Maybe there was something you were planning on doing this fall that you make the decision to remove from the calendar.
One of my great gladness’s is having our full team at church in place. Now my opportunity is to let go and allow them to lead in their own way. Perhaps that is your challenge in your context too? Much of our lack of rest comes from some spiritual pride – that we think we are indispensable and need to do it all ourselves. Self-justification is a dangerous idea that will invariably leave us disappointed.
Jesus asked his disciples, “Why are you afraid, you of little faith?” We can ask ourselves what are we afraid of that we don’t observe the Sabbath, take care of ourselves, and accept Christ’s peace? Are we afraid of not getting it all done? Or not achieving enough? Of not meeting someone’s expectations? Or not keeping up with the Jones’? Of not being seen as in charge?
But we are not in charge. The conclusion of our passage this morning is that the one in charge is the one who even the winds and seas obey. The question is do we obey as well?
Let go of your need to do it all yourself and trust God. God has invested a lot in creating and recreating us and God wants to protect God’s investment by making sure we care for ourselves.
Let go and let God. Niebuhr prayed, “God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change; courage to change the things I can; and wisdom to know the difference.” As the Psalms put it, “I do not occupy myself with things too great and too marvelous for me.” “I have calmed and quieted my soul…my hope is in the Lord.”
I recall last summer when we were up in Cape Cod and I took my daughter Cathleen out in a boat, (I look forward to doing it again next month) a friend was sailing it and we held her in the boat. The boat began to tip a bit and Cathleen held on tight, gripping us in fear. But then my embrace let her know she was okay and she was calm.
During the storm in the Sea of Galilee, Jesus slept in the boat while the disciples panicked. But when he was ready, Jesus calmed his friends and he calmed the storm. It is the same calm he brings in the storms of life. It is the calm in the face of our fears. It is the same calm that we all know we need. It is calm that God requests of us through our spiritual practices, through observance of Sabbath, self-care and sleep, and through prayer, rest, and worship. Through spending time with our children. Through just being alone with our thoughts.
J.G. Whittier sums up the peace Jesus brought that day by Galilee. And the peace he offers to us each Sabbath and each day. Whittier wrote,
“O Sabbath rest by Galilee! O calm of hills above, Where Jesus knelt to share with thee, The silence of eternity, Interpreted by love!
Drop thy still dews of quietness, Till all our strivings cease;
Take from our souls the strain and stress, and let our ordered lives confess, The beauty of thy peace.”
Thanks be to God. Amen.